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How A Simple Gift Restored Her Christmas Spirit

Her son’s struggles with bi-polar disorder and addiction left her discouraged. A gift from one of his friends changed everything.

Marion loves old-fashioned writing tools like Vincent’s precious pencil.

I drove through downtown Athens, Georgia, searching for a parking place near the courthouse. I tried not to look at all the holiday decorations, the people hurrying by with their gifts. Christmas wasn’t happening this year. Not for me.

I was picking up my son Jeremy from his class at the courthouse. We spotted each other at the same time. I pulled over and he hopped in. He looked nice. White crewneck sweater over a red shirt and pressed khakis. Clean-shaven, fresh haircut. He was trying really hard, I could tell.

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Jeremy was charming and funny, responsible and kind. But he’d stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder a few months earlier. When he goes off his meds, he becomes a completely different person. Manic. Reckless. Getting high. He’d had three wrecks in three days. He was in his late forties. It wasn’t the first time he’d relapsed and gotten arrested.

He was charged with reckless driving. This time, instead of a regular trial and jail, he went into the Treatment and Accountability Court (TAC) program for people with mental illness. The judge ordered him to wear an ankle monitor and confined him to house arrest. Jeremy was only allowed out for work, church, life skills classes every Wednesday at the courthouse, addiction counseling and treatment.

And the Christmas party we were headed to, at the community center. Jeremy was required to attend, along with the others in TAC. He was clean, back on his meds and doing well in the program. I wanted to show my support.

His driver’s license had been revoked. Sometimes his friends would drive him to his appointments and classes, but mostly my husband, Gene, and I did. Gene and I were in our eighties and both of us struggled with chronic pain. We depended on Jeremy for a lot. Now he wasn’t even allowed to come to our house. He wouldn’t be able to put up our tree. For the first time ever, I didn’t plan on having a tree at all. I just didn’t have the energy for Christmas. Physically. Or spiritually.

The community center smelled of fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread. Jeremy led me over to a distinguished-looking gentleman in a dark suit. “Mom, this is Judge David Sweat, who directs TAC. Judge Sweat, this is my mother, Marion.”

I was deeply grateful that Jeremy had been given a second chance through the program, and I told the judge how I felt. We talked for a few minutes.

Jeremy said, “Mom, meet Vincent. He can draw really well. Even has a scholarship to art school, when he finishes TAC.” I shook the hand Vincent stuck out.

Then Jeremy and I moved through the food line and sat down in folding chairs at a long table. I set my purse on the floor. Vincent stood hesitantly with his tray. “Sit with us,” Jeremy said, pulling out a chair.

Vincent’s thin face showed years of hard living. Tattoos covered his neck, arms and hands. He leaned toward me, obviously wanting to talk. I concentrated on my chicken, even though I wasn’t hungry.

“You should see some of his drawings, Mom. He’s a great artist.” Vincent beamed. I let Jeremy keep the conversation going.

We started on the banana pudding. Vincent pulled a small rolled-up book with no cover from his back pocket and laid it open on the table. Then he plucked a pencil from his shirt pocket, bent over the book and began underlining busily.

“Mom,” Jeremy whispered, nudging me, “he wants you to notice.”

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I made myself ask, “Whatcha reading?” Not that I was all that interested.

Vincent put down his pencil and slid the book across the table.

I picked it up, scanned a page. The topic and tone were dark. “This isn’t good reading,” I said. I felt Jeremy’s eyes on me.

“I can’t read regular books,” Vincent said. “I need glasses. I found this one. It’s large print, you see.”

“Mom probably has an extra pair.” Jeremy lifted my huge, messy purse off the floor. I fished around and pulled out a pair of drugstore reading glasses. I slid them across the table.

“Try ’em,” Jeremy said. Vincent put the glasses on. He grinned, revealing missing teeth. Then he took the glasses off.

“No, they’re for you. Keep them,” I said before Jeremy could.

“Thank you, Mrs. West.” Vincent looked at his pencil on the table and pushed it slowly toward me.

I sat frozen. “He wants you to have it, Mom,” Jeremy whispered.

“Thank you, Vincent,” I said. I picked up the pencil and studied it as if I’d never seen one before. It was shiny black, with a green and yellow metal band attaching the eraser.

I looked up at Vincent—a rough, hurting man. But when my gaze settled on his eyes, I saw a soft glow in them, like the light of the world making its way through a crack in a dilapidated barn.

And making its way into my heart again. “Vincent,” I told him, “I’m going to make sure Jeremy brings you a better book when y’all meet on Wednesday.”

“Really?” he asked. I nodded.

The party was over. Vincent and I hugged each other good-bye. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. West.”

“Merry Christmas, Vincent. So good to have met you.”

In the car, Jeremy asked, “Are you going to give him your latest book about prayer?”

“Yes. And I’m going to wrap it as beautifully as I can, in red, with a big bow.”

“Thank you for coming with me, Mom.”

“Thank you for inviting me. It was just the celebration I needed.”

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